Sunday, September 05, 2004

Appalling Beyond Words

I'd tried earlier to stay away from the Ossetian hostage crisis for lack of a full understanding of what exactly was going on, but as news continues to come in, the sheer scale of the massacre that is being revealed is simply too great to allow the event to pass unnoticed.

The death toll in the Russian hostage crisis has climbed beyond 350 as President Vladimir Putin denounced the massacre as "an attack on our country."


North Ossetia government spokesman Lev Dzugayev told CNN that 323 hostages, including 156 children, died in the siege in the southern town.
In addition, 26 hostage-takers -- including 10 people from Arab countries -- and at least 10 Russian Special Forces troops died.
Chechens have been affiliated with the al Qaeda terror network, and an Arab connection suggests a further link between the Chechen rebel movement and international terrorism. Chechen rebels have been fighting Russian troops for a decade, seeking independence.
More than 700 people were wounded, officials said.
Dzugayev said Saturday evening that 448 people were still in hospitals in the region, including 248 children. Among the total hospitalized, 69 were in serious condition.
Of course the hostage takers are primarily to blame - it takes a special sort of ruthlessness to take elementary school children hostage - but the Russian security forces must also take their share of culpability for the loss of lives that took place. From the start I had forebodings that they'd show the same sort of impetuosity as they did in the Moscow hostage drama that that took place in 2002, and given the Russian government's record of dishonesty in public matters, I am utterly unable to take its spokesmen at their word when they say things like the following:
Most of the dead were killed when a bomb exploded in the gymnasium, Dzugayev said.
Of those who died from gunshot wounds, most were shot in the back as they fled the gymnasium, he said.
It all sounds much too convenient to be true, and after the lies that accompanied both the sinking of the Kursk* and the 2002 hostage crisis, I'd be a fool to buy their story on such an embarrassing occasion. Who is to say that what actually happened isn't that the Russians misinterpreted some action by the hostage takers, began shooting, and then all hell broke loose?

But leaving aside for now the question of whether or not the Russian security forces bungled yet another hostage rescue, there remains the far more vexing question of what exactly to do about the ever worsening rounds of terrorism being carried out by Chechen separatists. As this story makes clear, it cannot be portrayed as a simple "Russians, Chechens bad" tale, and the Chechens definitely have legitimate grievances: the events that have transpired since they tried to break away from the Soviet Union in 1990 ought to serve as a lesson for all those who think that territorial integrity ought always to be maintained whatever the wishes of the people in question.

Having said all that, the worst possible course of action the Russians could take at this very moment would be to accede to Chechen demands, as it would only encourage yet more of the same, only worse, as the following excerpt from the Slate article hints at.
A shocking and important event preceded the Russian pullout from Chechnya. In June 1995, a group of rebels emerged from what seemed at the time to be a nearly defeated Chechnya and tried to take over the small Russian town of Budyonnovsk. Dozens of armed men ended up barricading themselves in the local hospital, where the patients, including women with their newborns, became their hostages. Russian troops tried to storm the building but aborted the attack quickly. In the end, Moscow negotiated a cease-fire in Chechnya and let the terrorists get away in exchange for the hostages' release. Immediately after Budyonnovsk, Russia started peace negotiations with the Chechen rebels, making the hospital siege probably the most successful act of terrorism in history. It is also the only large-scale hostage-taking that didn't end in a storm.
If concessions must be ruled out to discourage the idea that terrorism can yield major benefits, and if the brutality which seems to be the sole response Putin's government is capable of only generates yet more bitterness upon which terrorism can feed, where do things go from here? It is beyond doubt that with sufficient brutality even Chechen separatism can be crushed - simply killing every last Chechen would do the job - but one would like to think that Putin's Russia isn't Stalin's, however strong the nostalgia for Uncle Joe's rule might be; as such, however much indifference the Russians might feign to Western criticism, the fact that they must pay some heed to it means that I can't see any escape hatch short of eventually letting the Chechens go their own way - even if it might be interpreted as "submitting to terrorism." All that can really be done to alleviate the latter threat is to do what Ariel Sharon has been doing in the Gaza Strip - strike back hard against the insurgents even as you prepare your retreat - and even then there's no guarantee that your opponents won't succeed in putting an unfavorable spin on events.

*And the subsequent drugging by security agents of a protester which was surreptitiously captured on camera.